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Boris Johnson's departure is only a matter of time

The British prime minister may hang on for a few more months, a few weeks, or even a few days, but his departure is a matter of when, not if
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is largely without friends even within his own party (AFP)

Neville Chamberlain and World War Two. Anthony Eden and the Suez crisis in 1956. Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax miscalculation. Only three times in the past century has a sitting British prime minister been forced out of office.

Now, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who won a seemingly impregnable majority of 80 seats over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party in the general election in December 2019, is fighting to save his political career.

With one or two exceptions, the British media has so far turned a blind eye to Johnson’s falsehoods and hypocrisy

A fight he is losing.

For the past week, Johnson’s Downing Street - and many of his cabinet ministers - have repeatedly insisted that no party took place in Downing Street last December in breach of Covid-19 rules.

On Tuesday evening, these protestations were exposed when an explosive video emerged of the prime minister’s then personal spokesperson, Allegra Stratton, laughing and joking when questioned about the event at a mock press conference. The video was filmed on 22 December, just four days after the alleged party took place.  

This deadly footage seems to prove that Johnson, and his government, repeatedly uttered falsehoods about an event that took place while Britain was in Covid lockdown - when many families were even banned from visiting their loved ones dying in hospital.

Of course, Johnson and his cabinet ministers have not told the truth countless times, both inside and outside parliament, on many issues, including Covid-19. These falsehoods have been well documented - see my own exponentially growing list here. But they have been ignored by the mainstream media, meaning they have failed to resonate powerfully with the general public.

This time it’s different.

History repeats itself

The majority of the British people have agonising memories of the personal - and sometimes tragic - sacrifices they made last Christmas to observe the national lockdown rules demanded by the Johnson government. They will have seen this obscene Downing Street video, which appears to prove that the Johnson government itself ignored these rules and - most repugnant of all - privately laughed and joked about them.  

Britain is facing a national crisis. Boris Johnson is running out of time
Peter Oborne
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This changes the national debate and means trouble for Boris Johnson.

I am reminded of the terrible “Milly Dowler moment” 10 years ago. For several years, it was impossible to get the British public interested in criminal phone hacking practised by journalists, much of it inside the Murdoch newspaper empire but also elsewhere. From the start, it was widely known within the newspaper industry itself that journalists had been breaking the law on an industrial scale. But silence prevailed. Even the BBC was reticent.

It was only when the horrific details emerged of how News of the World reporters illegally hacked into the phone of the murdered, missing schoolgirl Milly Dowler, giving her anxious parents the impression that she could still be alive, did the phone-hacking story go viral. A development that forced the closure of the News of the World.

A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs), in the House of Commons in London on December 8, 2021.
British parliament during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) on 8 December 2021 (AFP)

History is repeating itself with Johnson, himself a former journalist. With one or two exceptions, the British media has so far turned a blind eye to Johnson’s falsehoods and hypocrisy. Some papers are still doing so, but it’s getting harder.

It should be said that several factors work in the prime minister’s favour. No one has claimed that he personally attended the notorious Downing Street party. That meant he was able at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday to express his shock at what happened, order an investigation and state that those responsible will be punished.

This strategy might work, but there is dangerous talk of other Downing Street parties. Fresh information can and probably will emerge. The situation is outside Johnson’s control. Also, it is extremely hard to force out an incumbent prime minister when she or he is determined to stay. 

A national emergency

Chamberlain (Britain's prime minister 1937-1940) faced a Tory party revolt at a moment of national emergency following the fall of Norway in May 1940. The backbencher Leo Amery said to him, when he channelled Oliver Cromwell’s dismissal of the Long Parliament shortly after the English civil war: "You have sat here too long for any good you are doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Watch the national polls. The prime minister has already lost his comfortable lead over Labour’s Keir Starmer. If he falls badly behind the Labour leader, Johnson won’t last

Eden (prime minister 1955-1957) went tamely after the Suez fiasco of 1956, pleading ill health. Thatcher (prime minister 1979-1990) felt she had no choice after her cabinet turned on her. 

But the rules are cumbrous when it comes to forcing out a Tory prime minister who is determined to hang onto power. Signatures must be assembled to mount a leadership challenge. This gives time for an embattled prime minister to rally his or her forces.

But consider this. Boris Johnson has few real friends in politics. He recently fell out with his chief whip Mark Spencer when he tried to change Commons rules on standards in a failed bid to protect his ally Owen Paterson MP. There will be a by-election next week in Paterson's North Shropshire constituency now that the former cabinet minister has quit parliament. The Conservatives have a solid majority, but there is a growing expectation among Liberal Democrats that they could take the seat.  

That would be a seismic result and a calamity for Johnson. The sharks would circle.

Watch the national polls. The prime minister has already lost his comfortable lead over Labour’s Keir Starmer. If he falls badly behind the Labour leader, Johnson won’t last. That’s because the Tory party, unlike Labour, is notoriously ruthless with failing leaders.

The end of the beginning

Tory MPs never liked Johnson. They only backed him because he was an election winner. If they decide he’s a liability, they will destroy him without a moment's thought.

Boris Johnson's post-truth government marks the end of the Nolan consensus
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To adapt a famous quote from Johnson’s political hero, Winston Churchill, this is not 'the end of the beginning' for Boris Johnson's premiership. It is the beginning of the end. When power and authority start to slip away, it can vanish in the blink of an eye.

The prime minister may hang on for a few more months. It may take a few weeks, or even a few days.

It’s only possible to be certain of one thing: Boris Johnson has, in political terms, joined the living dead. He’s become a posthumous prime minister.

It’s become a matter of time; when, not if. His departure will be pregnant with meaning and consequence for Britain. But that’s a subject for another column.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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